Jonathan Jones: The Mysteries of Migration

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Like many other migratory animals, we still don’t know how birds navigate during their long migrations.

Australia is home, or the summer stopover at least, for some of the world’s longest travellers. Every summer millions of migratory waterbirds like the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) somehow find their way back to Australian shores. Coming from as far away as the Arctic, China, Russia and Korea, these birds seek our wetlands and shorelines, combing them for mosquitoes, gnats and other insects.

The arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) has the longest migration of any bird, travelling from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year. One chick was tagged on the Farne Islands off England and reached Melbourne—some 22,000km distance—in three months.

Although Australia and other countries are bound by international agreements to look after migratory animals, every year these species dwindle, with most now listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. This is due mainly to the destruction of their intertidal environments and wetlands. In an era marked by the rise in global nationalism, these international birds speak to a different world, a world of connectedness; one that acknowledges our place within a global environment and understands that walls don’t work.

Some researchers believe that migrating birds use the earth’s magnetic field, while others think these fields are too weak to detect. Other theories suggest that birds use light to navigate, and/or visual landmarks, and/or olfactory cues (smells). Many researchers think it’s a combination of these navigation tools, but no-one knows for sure how these remarkable small birds circumnavigate the world and return to the same feeding ground, nest or location time and time again. Without having a full understanding of how birds survive we are always going to struggle to protect them.

For more information about migration, see the ABC news report Flying for their lives.


Each week Jonathan Jones shares stories of native Australian birds, touching on their importance, the issues they face and what we can learn from them. Jones' upcoming artwork for the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art requires thousands of native Australian bird feathers, which he needs your help to find.

Image: Arctic tern, via Birdway. Photograph by Ian Montgomery.